Gifted with an innate understanding of business and a desire to get it done, Shawn Harris has had a drive to succeed from an early age. The Wisconsin-born daughter of a welder and housewife, and sister to nine other siblings, her life and career could well be defined by that most American of phrases, ‘Going with your gut’.
“I didn’t know I had that potential because I was number eight,” says Shawn referring to her placement on the Harris sibling pecking order. “But I think I was born with a gene that was just always going to overachieve, and that’s kind of why I think I am where I am today.”
Getting to ‘today’ was quite the journey for Shawn. Living an inverse American Dream, she broke out of her socio-economic ‘bubble’ (“I felt sad for my father, that he felt that there were limitations on what he could do with his life”), becoming the first of her family to go to college and then, almost immediately after graduation, moving to the Netherlands with just $100 in her wallet.
“Nobody thought I’d stay, but coincidences kept me here,” says Shawn of how she ended up a naturalised Hollander. “I ended up in the middle of nowhere in the northern part of the Netherlands where I couldn’t find a job, so I spent the first six months learning the language and I thought, ‘Okay, I am going to have to start something myself.’
In an early example of her inherent ability to spot a gap in the market, Shawn positioned herself as an importer of exotic fruit and vegetables, her first step on the road to being crowned the ‘Avocado Queen’.
“I had friends in Wisconsin who had family in Miami who were exporting off-season exotic fruit and vegetables to Europe. So, I called them and asked them if I could be an agent. They said, ‘Nah, you wouldn’t be able to do it. You wouldn’t have the tenacity to do it’… So, I just kept calling them until they said yes!
“I leased a fax and I was immediately successful. Within one year, I was making more money than my fighter pilot boyfriend was at the time. Within three years, I had 35% of the exporter’s business in Europe. I found customers, I heard what they wanted, I kept it in mind and I built a company.”
That company was Nature’s Pride. Established in 2001 (after Shawn spent the previous decade learning the industry) with virtually no funding and advice, the firm grew to import, distribute, ripen and package exotic fruit, vegetables and berries from 70 countries and sold to 400 customers all around the world.
It was time for a change, or they were going to write on my gravestone, ‘Shawn Harris: Avocado Queen’.
By 2017, Nature’s Pride had built up a 650-strong workforce with a turnover of €400 million per year (four times the sector’s normal earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation – EBITDA)… And then Shawn sold the business.
“I think I was really good at learning things, but I was tired and I was getting bored,” she says. “I didn’t see any more challenges. I didn’t see the next step. So, it was time for a change, or they were going to write on my gravestone, ‘Shawn Harris: Avocado Queen’.”
Having sold her shares to her partners in Norway and following a smooth exit from Nature’s Pride, that’s where the self-made entrepreneur story could have ended. But that afore-mentioned drive refused to let Shawn stay in full-time retirement.
“I didn’t even realise what we built until I left,” she says. “After six months off, I drove past the building where we had a state-of-the-art warehousing system that was delivering to everywhere from Stuttgart to Hong Kong and then I was able to look back and see what we did was fantastic.”
The Nature’s Pride exit gave Shawn a chance to reflect on her achievements, which also hadn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere. In 2017, she was given the prestigious title of Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau by The Kingdom of the Netherlands for her commitment to improving education and living standards around the globe: “My God, I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “I’m an American in the Netherlands, I didn’t even know that was possible.”
“Nature’s Pride created a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team 15 years ago to support the farmers with a social audit, we wanted to be sure that they were following the UN Social and Sustainable rules of doing business. We helped our growers, who were located often in poor countries around the world, become more professional and fairer, and we also made safe and humane working conditions a priority.”
Having also built schools and day-care facilities near packing plants and created a fair-trade fund for mango workers in North Peru, Shawn’s focus saw “Nature’s Pride become the founding father of these standards in the agricultural business.”
Not only a huge honour, the knighthood served to further embolden Shawn to do better. As such, she embarked upon a second career that saw her transition from ‘Avocado Queen’ to ‘Business Mom’.
I like supporting several founders who want to make their impact dream come true and become financially independent at the same time.
As founder and CEO of Orange Wings Investments, a venture capital (VC) evergreen firm which provides funding, expertise and guidance to startups and scaleups, Shawn has rededicated her energies to helping motivated entrepreneurs accelerate their business success – sharing the learned knowledge and experience she admits she would have benefitted from being taught earlier in her own career.
“I did not want to be operational anymore,” says Shawn of her decision to create a VC firm overseeing multiple businesses rather than simply opening a new one of her own. “Being the CEO of a company is a 24-hour responsibility. I like supporting several founders who want to make their impact dream come true and become financially independent at the same time. This is the next generation and they keep me young and on my toes, this is so much fun!”
A calculated risk-taker with a proven record of startup investments that are growing and profitable (“At Nature’s Pride we made great profits because we were constantly focused on operational excellence, she says. “We are doing the same with these startups.”), Shawn recognised that the Dutch are traditionally risk averse when it comes to alternative investments and identified another gap in the market - following her gut again to great success.
“There’s a reason for the phrase “Let’s go Dutch!,” she says. “They are careful and they would much rather wait for the A or B round and not risk losing everything. I didn’t have anything 15 years ago, so I have nothing to lose and everything to gain… I mean, I can’t take it with me. I guess that’s more of an American approach than Dutch.”
“I’m still so surprised there’s not more people taking advantage of this opportunity, because there are literally thousands of startups in the Netherlands which are not getting the cash they need,” she says, referring to the Dutch reputation for reliability and a strong work ethic. “Now we have our hands full with potentially hugely successful companies that are making an impact. I have this inner commitment to help these kids. I needed the help they need and I didn’t get it – and I know what it means if you do get it.”
Shawn describes herself as a “smart investor focused on impact” and is aware of the many pitfalls for both early-stage patron and founder of those tricky first steps. Guiding them through what she calls the “valley of death” by bringing on board the right recruitment and controlling the funding allocations allows her to closely monitor the progress of her investments.
“We study about 100 investment opportunities per year,” she says of the Orange Wings Investments deal flow process. “Most do not get through to the first meeting because the pitch deck is so weak, or the business case is not interesting. Then we meet for the first time to see if we have a personal match with the same values. After that, we have a very detailed list of questions. We want to know if they really understand their business. We often say no to brilliant opportunities because they do not make enough impact.”
I think the Next Gen are pushing the older generation to rethink.
Of those startups that have made the cut, Shawn’s portfolio encompasses firms such as next-gen emergency services solution AVY, energy storage technology Volta Energy, innovative sustainable funeral provider Loop Biotech, eco-friendly indoor agriculture firm 80 Acres Farms and many more. Orange Wings Investments is often the only major investor in its sustainability-inclined startups, allowing for a clear line of communication and transparent, achievable shared goals. What’s good for the startups is clearly good for Shawn and co… “We just valued our company and realised that we’ve made conservatively 42% a year since 2016. So not bad, you know!”
Interest in environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investing has seen a boost in recent years, with (according to Campden Wealth’s European Family Office Report 2022) two-thirds of European family offices engaging in the space. On average, among these investors, sustainable investments account for 36% of their portfolios and this proportion is expected to grow to 43% within the next five years. Having been ahead of the curve with a focus on sustainable ventures, Shawn believes the ‘good-business’ push is fully down to the incoming generation.
“I think the Next Gen are pushing the older generation to rethink,” she says. “We’re all pretty worried about what we’re doing with the environment and I think we don’t have a choice. I really think it’s being driven by the newer generations. I’m just doing a little part and the best I can.”
That “little part” has, nevertheless, proved to be a major boost to a host of startups that could make a huge global impact. Oyster Heaven, for example, is a concept that could reap benefits both environmentally and financially, and is a prime example of Shawn’s taste for risk and gift for spotting opportunities.
“Boy, does that have potential,” says Shawn. “Oysters are the biggest cleaners of nitrogen in the oceans, they create biodiversity and they stop erosion. Because 80% to 90% of all the oysters in the world have been consumed, without them we’re going to lose our oceans. Oyster Heaven, which creates natural, cost-effective, climate friendly and biodegradable artificial reefs, has the potential to save the seas literally. I just thought, even it was my last penny and I had to borrow the money, I would have thrown everything into this company.”
It’s this ‘go hard or go home’ attitude that has marked Shawn out a larger-than-life character in her adopted country. And, subsequently, an essential original member of the Dutch Dragons’ Den multi-millionaire investor line-up.
“I was surprised when they approached me because I was just getting started in the VC space,” says Shawn of the reality show that sees budding entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to five business icons who are willing to invest their own cash, time and expertise. “I had spent 20 years trying to keep myself anonymous and this meant the total opposite of that. But I decided to do it because the show was so interesting and the other Dragons and I have so much fun together.”
Now in its fourth season, the series not only gave Shawn the chance to demonstrate her fluent Dutch, but it helped to raise her profile in the business world - “It has given me huge opportunities and it has made me relevant in the Netherlands,” she says.
Everybody makes mistakes. It’s fixing those mistakes and making sure you don’t repeat them that matters.
Having taken the risks and reaped the rewards, the benefit for entrepreneurs and founders in working with Shawn is clear to see.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” she says “It’s fixing those mistakes and making sure you don’t repeat them that matters. What’s good for my startups is that I’ve probably already made the mistake. My value is from 25 years of building a business from scratch and making it successful. Going from nothing to a €400 million company takes a completely different management skillset.”
With no plans “To do a third career”, Shawn’s immediate aims are to nurture her investments in a sector that she fully expects to balloon over the next decade. But, while the numbers are likely to get much bigger, her inclination for risk is unlikely to change.
“Over the next ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if what we’ve done is valued in the billions,” she says. “We will reinvest half of that back into impact and our investments will get bigger because we’ll have more money.
“I’m going to enjoy these investments for the rest of my life because I’m sure when they exit, they will reinvest in Orange Wings Investments and help us to become bigger. Even when I’m gone, this beautiful creation will be developing early-stage startups into globally impactful companies.
“I’m just so excited about the journey. I’m in it for the long run. I think we’re all doing this for the right reason, which is to make an impact and not necessarily to make money… that just follows. At Nature’s Pride, we weren’t counting our pennies every day, the money followed us because we were great at what we were doing. That’s what I’m trying to do now and it’s working.”
Having gone from running a ‘family business’ to heading up a ‘business family’, Shawn is happy to say that she’s still learning the ropes. The first four years of Orange Wings Investments saw her making one-to-two investments per year, but now that patented Harris confidence is once again gaining momentum.
“You always make missteps when you start something new, and I hoped to keep them as least costly as possible,” she says. “It was nice to be able to control the process completely and spend my own funds for the early mistakes. Every year I get better at this and understand what the startups need the most. I have discovered that they appreciate and need a really motivated partner that thinks with them.
“I believe that if you are going to do something, then do it excellently and with passion. Then you get flow and the world is yours to conquer.”
Just as Benjamin Franklin once advised his fellow Americans to “do well by doing good,” Shawn continues to display a dedicated determination to make an impact and a profit in a risk-averse environment.